Mark Powell’s comprehensive essay in the sumptuous 24-page booklet tells you all you need to know about this unique band, right from their chaotically naïve beginnings, later becoming the reason for the formation of Charisma Records, as amazingly manager Tony Stratton-Smith couldn’t get any other label interested! The essay follows the group through various triumphs, trials and tribulations, splits and reformations, and ends right up to date. This double CD, as the title indicates, concentrates on the classic era, ending with the string-driven late 70s incarnation of this wilfully singular group.
Passing through the early years on CD1 I am struck by the youthful purity of Peter Hammill’s voice, a device that developed into an instrument in its own right by the time of the band’s early magnum opus Pawn Hearts in 1971. As the years passed, ravaged by years of a forty-plus-a-day cigarette habit, the pure tones of Afterwards became the enthralling declamatory beast that marauds through Scorched Earth, Still Life, La Rossa, and beyond. As far as I am aware there was no Faustian pact involved, unless Old Nick was the major stakeholder in British American Tobacco.
Hammill contends, quite rightly, that Van der Graaf Generator only properly got underway with their second album, 1970’s The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other. Prior to that there was no David Jackson, aka Jaxon, who was a vital cog in the VdGG machine, a cog that to my mind is missed greatly in the current incarnation of the band. The pre-Jaxon VdGG is represented by the first three tracks: People You Were Going To, a jaunty off-kilter psych-pop single, an angelic version of Afterwards, and the menacing future-indicator Necromancer, all recorded for John Peel’s Top Gear show in 1968. Peely, an early champion of the band, as ever knew a good thing when he found it.
After a brief split, the band reformed, now with David Jackson on board. The compositional leap forward to The Least We Can Do… is practically tangible, as the band’s second Top Gear session, recorded in 1970 attests. Hammill’s deeply intoxicating lyricism is now developing apace, and Jaxon spurs Hugh Banton along into ever more dark corners of home-made Hammond distortions and swells. The version of After The Flood included here will have your neck hairs standing to attention – marvellous stuff!
The first of five previously unreleased tracks on this set is Vision from a 1971 Sounds Of The Seventies session. This is a plaintive piano and vocal song from Hammill’s first solo album Fool’s Mate, hence its non-appearance on the now superseded Maida Vale single CD album of BBC sessions. That same session also includes the first of two versions of ManErg, a live staple almost from the day it was written right up to the present. That it is one of only two songs included here twice is rather fitting. Magnificent and otherworldly, this beast of a song captures VdGG at their two extremes, veering from deep introspective romanticism to musical and lyrical paranoid declamation - “Am I really me, am I someone else?” The Thin Man screams over Jaxon and Banton’s taut stridency, all held together by Guy Evans’ powerhouse economic rhythms. Another triumph, and proof to me, if any were needed that choosing a favourite VdGG song is an impossible task.
The other song included twice is Darkness, the second version of which, again from the Sounds Of The Seventies session includes some incendiary blowing from Jaxon, highlighting why he was such an important constituent of VdGG’s sonic template. By this time, the band had no bass player, Banton playing the bass parts with foot pedals, which added a different, more sonorous timbre to VdGG’s by now instantly recognisable sound.
CD1 ends with one of VdGG’s more accessible songs, and the version of Killer, the final of three from a BBC radio concert from 1971 lurches along in theatrically menacing fashion, Hammill getting well into the mindset of the solitary predator.
CD2 commences with a fitting song to end the second era of the band, Refugees being a melancholic paen to time and people moving on. Burned out by the relentless cycle of gigging, writing, recording, and touring again, the band stopped for around two years sometime during the late summer of 1972 after a particularly crazy tour of Italy where they were bona fide counter-culture stars. During his time away from VdGG, Hammill threw himself into his solo career, and was often joined in the studio by his erstwhile bandmates. Perhaps inevitably the four eventually regrouped and the astonishing result was 1975’s Godbluff, the first of three albums in quick succession that saw the band reach a plateau of perfection where the rollercoaster thrilling visceral excitement of before is channelled into controlled bursts of intense energy fuelling life-soaked matured lyrical and musical romanticism.
Just as the first CD witnessed a giant leap forward with the first version of Darkness, so the process is repeated with the seismic shift from Refugees, taken from a December 1971 Peel session to second track Scorched Earth, recorded just over three and half years later, again for Peel. The Godbluff tune shines with a new confidence in both arrangement and execution. This is a band that knows what it wants and how to get it. By now, Van der Graaf Generator have invented their own musical language, where incorporating the cha-cha-cha into a song’s structure as if it was the most natural thing to do makes Sleepwalkers yet another timeless classic. Incidentally, you are probably well aware of John Lydon’s love of VdGG, but one look at the stark black/white/red cover of The Fall’s Fall Heads Roll album and its similarity to Godbluff will tell you that Mark E. Smith is a fan, too.
Arguably, Still Life was even better than Godbluff, the band now reaching a peak of savage beauty unlike anything else extant at a time when the music scene was stagnating all around them. If there was a reason prog had to die, it certainly wasn’t Van der Graaf Generator. By April 1976 VdGG were out on their own in the world of mainstream eclectic rock music, as King Crimson had come to a halt well over a year previously, and the sonic and social upheavals of punk were still some nine months away. This was cutting edge rock music in spring 1976, and were it not for John Peel I would have had little idea it existed, such was VdGG’s low profile. A truly great version of La Rossa shows a band at the top of their game. A mere six more months passed before the final album from this incarnation of VdGG saw the light of day. World Record is sometimes overlooked when classic VdGG albums are discussed, but it continued to mine the same rich vein of inspiration, and the consummate versions of When She Comes and Masks bear this out.
Hammill says that VdGG’s music has stood the test of time because they never paid any heed to what was commercially popular at the time, much to their continual impoverishment, and he’s right. Also, his lyrics spoke of real human concerns, you will not find any cod-philosophising or songs about faeries on VdGG albums, making the songs as relevant now as they ever were. For these same reasons the group withstood the fury of punk, Hammill having foreseen its coming with his character Ricky Nadir back in February 1975. The late 70s version of Van der Graaf , with its prescient punchier name was a furious proposition live, with Graham Smith’s violin and Hammill’s spikily primitive guitar replacing the now departed Banton and Jackson’s contributions, and because of this they fitted in with the zeitgeist rather well.
This stellar compilation ends with a couple of tracks from that band’s only album, 1977’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, including the marvellously punky Cat’s Eye/Yellow Fever. While still recognisably Van der Graaf (Generator), it was somewhat atypical in sound, and oddly it was also the first VdGG album I bought, making my later learning curve a somewhat weird experience! Perhaps it was a case of “I prophecy disaster, and then I count the cost” – speaking of which the strings-driven excerpt from A Plague… closing the second CD is far better than it had any right to be.
As you can see, I came to Van der Graaf Generator relatively late in the day, and it took me many years to get beneath the thick skin of their wilfully dense music, but once inside the belly of the beast there is no escape, and actually, I’m quite happy here, thanks all the same. Perhaps more than any of the other original progressive rock bands, Van der Graaf Generator were and indeed are something of a “Marmite” group. As Hammill says of the band’s early days “…in our live show we usually alienated fifty percent of the audience who used to walk out. The fifty percent who stayed would always come back to the next gig and became very loyal.” All I can say is, the fifty percent who walked out never to return and their modern equivalent who run screaming for the hills whenever VdGG is mentioned really did and do not know what they are missing – oh well, it was and is their loss. The rest of you need to buy this, if you haven’t already!
- People You Were Going To (3:29)
- Afterwards (4:41)
- Necromancer (4:08)
- Darkness (6:49)
- After The Flood (10:56)
- ManErg (11:08)
- Theme One (2:56)
- Vision (3:13)
- Darkness (7:15)
- ManErg (10:37)
- W (5:08)
- Killer (8:09)
Total running time – 78:58
- Refugees (6:17)
- Scorched Earth (9:40)
- Sleepwalkers (9:59)
- Still Life (7:19)
- La Rossa (9:56)
- When She Comes (8:09)
- Masks (7:23)
- Cat’s Eye/Yellow Fever (4:44)
- The Sphinx In The Face (5:32)
- (Fragments Of) A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers/Sleepwalkers (9:28)
Total running time – 78:51
Peter Hammill – Vocals, Acoustic guitar, Guitar, Piano, Electric piano
Hugh Banton – Organ, Piano, Bass Pedals, Bass guitar
Guy Evans – Drums
Keith Ellis – Bass guitar
David Jackson – Saxophones, Flute
Nic Potter – Bass guitar
Graham Smith – Violin
Charles Dickie - Cello